"Nine times does the bell echo throughout the mountains, representing a change of era. The ice of Feng River defrosts, for the autumn has left and the spring has arrived."
Editor(s): jelly, opal
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From under the inner seat of the carriage, Li Qingcheng pulled out a set of leather armor and changed into it. He untied the reins on the cart, then he and Fang Qingyu each took a horse. Li Qingcheng commanded, “You go help Tang Hong and act when you see fit. I’ll go search for Ying-ge.”
Fang Qingyu nodded before turning his horse’s head and heading in the direction of the provincial officer’s manor. Li Qingcheng turned his horse and left the city.
At that time, though the lamps along the eastern main street had already been extinguished, the guards outside the city gates hadn’t yet received the news. Li Qingcheng exited the city, and the arctic gyr rose into the air. It spread its wings as it glided low, guiding him forward, and it led Li Qingcheng towards the south of the city.
Tang Hong, with eighty troops in tow, rushed through the main street.
“Provincial Officer Lin --!” Tang Hong called. “Provincial Officer Lin! Is there anyone at home?”
That instantly startled the entirety of the provincial officer’s manor, and his second in command, Zhang Yan, rushed out the door, loudly scolding, “Who do you think you are?!”
Tang Hong pulled out a letter and asked, “Where is Provincial Officer Lin Xi?! What is your name? This is a matter of life and death, quickly go report to the lord provincial officer!”
Zhang Yan took the letter, and upon seeing that Tang Hong was wearing Rong clothing and didn’t seem like someone from the Western Plains, he replied, “The provincial officer has gone to the Sun manor to attend a banquet and has not yet returned. This commander’s name is Zhang Yan, what is my lord called?”
“I am the current court’s Great General Tang Yingzhao’s son, Tang Hong!” Tang Hong declared. “Lord Zhang, we are here in the Western Plains under the imperial court’s command. At the waystation, we found a courier acting suspiciously, his movements shifty. After searching him, we found a letter.”
Zhang Yan took the letter and hesitated for a second before sending someone to the Sun manor with a message. He then invited Tang Hong into the main hall and tore open the letter. Tang Hong didn’t stop him, merely picking up the tea and chugging it.
The more Zhang Yan read, the more shocked he grew. Finally, he folded the paper up and, with his brow furrowed, said, “General Tang, are the contents of this letter true?”
Tang Hong: “His Highness the Crown Prince is currently rushing towards Ting City, and he sent me ahead at top speed to deliver the news. He’s afraid that the Sun family might try to act against Provincial Officer Lin.”
This had happened so suddenly, and Zhang Yan was muddle-headed to begin with, so now he was left completely dumbfounded. He could only sit there and ask in response, “What are we supposed to do now?”
Tang Hong said, “When Provincial Officer Lin returns, then we can come up with a plan…”
Before he could finish speaking, a soldier had already shouted loudly from outside the estate,
“Reporting in -- Provincial Officer Lin was caught up in an assassination attempt as he was heading to the banquet!”
A weng went through Zhang Yan’s head, and his brain grew blank white as he and Tang Hong exchanged glances. Tang Hong’s gaze was also filled with confusion, at a loss for what to do.
“Is Provincial Officer Lin still alive?” Tang Hong asked.
“I don’t… this officer does not know.” That soldier was also very confused. “The brothers that went as his escort all died. According to the citizens along the Western Main Street, as the provincial officer’s and governor’s sedan chairs, one ahead of the other, headed to the banquet, Governor Sun stopped his sedan chair on the way and requested that the Lord Provincial Officer join him. Supposedly, he had matters to discuss, and after the provincial officer returned, they hadn’t gone very far before they were ambushed by assassins hidden along the side of the road… They’re saying, they’re saying…”
“What are they saying?” Tang Hong asked, his voice trembling.
The soldier said, “They’re saying that the provincial officer’s corpse was divided up; now the Western Main Street is a complete mess, and the corpse has already been taken away by the assassins!”
Zhang Yan rose, only to sit down heavily again right after.
The hall was silent for a moment, before Tang Hong said, “Lord Zhang.”
Zhang Yan swallowed, and Tang Hong repeated gravely, “Lord Zhang!”
“Come with me, we’ll go to the Western Main Street!” Zhang Yan turned around to retrieve his armor.
But Tang Hong said, “Please wait! Lord Zhang! Right now, you must not act hastily!”
Zhang Yan stopped in his tracks, hesitating between his options. Tang Hong continued, “If my guess is correct, the governor is going to come very soon. At that time, I’m afraid that he will try to forcefully take control of the Ting Province troops, and if Lord Zhang falters even the slightest bit, then he might fall victim to his vicious schemes.”
Zhang Yan pulled out the letter, shuddering as he looked it over again. The governor’s dark red seal was stamped where the signature would go, and with that, he had no more suspicions.
“Now what should we do?” Zhang Yan asked. “What are we supposed to do?”
Tang Hong replied solemnly, “Lord Zhang! You and I are both troops of Yu Country, and this moment is the very moment to accomplish something great. Since you have decided, you must not grow flustered. His Highness the Crown Prince sent me ahead exactly to live and die with the Ting Province troops, to share equally in victory and annihilation. As of today, before I could welcome the arrival of Provincial Officer Lin, he had already fallen victim to this scheme. General Zhang, you must not resign yourself to certain doom, please listen to what I have to say!” With this, he went down on one knee. “On behalf of His Highness the Crown Prince, Tang Hong beseeches Lord Zhang to do one thing!”
Zhang Yan hurried to pull him to his feet. “Lord Tang, please rise quickly.”
From the pouch at his waist, Tang Hong pulled out a solid silver waist tally. “Lord Zhang, this is what His Highness ordered me to bring to Provincial Officer Lin. Since the provincial officer has fallen prey to misfortune, if Lord Zhang is willing to inherit the will of Provincial Officer Lin and follow the crown prince, I will guarantee, with my future, that I will request that His Highness appoint milord as the Ting Province’s provincial officer.”
Zhang Yan’s gaze flashed at that, but he still hesitated. Tang Hong continued, “If Lord Zhang is unwilling, there is no harm in that, but if this general could point out one thing more: since Governor Sun killed the Lord Provincial Officer, he will definitely be on his guard against you taking revenge. He might even wait until after he’s gained control of the troops before he strikes. Lord Zhang, for his Highness to guarantee the lives of you and your family and avenge Provincial Officer Lin’s death is all within the span of a single wish of yours.
Zhang Yan was a little moved by what Tang Hong had said, but he was still unwilling to take his words at face value. He said, his voice trembling, “When will His Highness the Crown Prince enter the city? What if the imperial court sends troops?”
Tang Hong replied, “The letter said that the court is only sending two thousand troops. We have eight thousand troops guarding Ting City, why be afraid of them?! Last year, the battle of Feng Pass greatly damaged the strength of the troops, and the imperial court has no more troops to mobilize against the Western Plains.”
Zhang Yan nodded slightly, and Tang Hong continued, “Provincial Officer Zhang, His Highness is the true son of the dragon, the rightful emperor. Before this, he had already sent a secret letter to Lord Lin, unwilling to let Lord Lin die a martyr's death. Now, Provincial Officer Zhang, your path forward is limitless, please consider this matter carefully.”
After Tang Hong said that, he no longer spoke, instead looking at Zhang Yan expectantly. This was already the last obstacle, and he had said all that he was supposed to. With that, he squeezed his right hand a little, waiting for Zhang Yan to act on even the slightest suspicion so he could immediately draw his halberd to cut him down.
Zhang Yan lifted a hand and indicated that Tang Hong wait for a moment before entering Lin Xi’s study. He had been under Lin Xi’s command for almost ten years, and no one could be as familiar with secret military reports than he was. He activated the switch and rifled through the secret compartment in the bookshelf, eventually finding a letter.
That was exactly the secret letter that Zhang Mu had personally handed to Lin Xi several days ago.
To prevent any mishaps, Lin Xi hadn’t brought the letter with him when he was heading to the banquet. After reading the letter, Zhang Yan finally let go of his suspicions, and he emerged swiftly, saying, “Could Lord Tang instruct me on what should be done next?”
It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders as Tang Hong cupped his hands, saying, “Lord Provincial Officer, how many bodyguards are there in the manor?”
Tang Hong changed the way he was addressing Zhang Yan. The position of the provincial officer had already been discussed openly, and it was already a done deal. However, Zhang Yan couldn’t help it; he still felt a little unaccustomed to it, and he replied, “There are… eighty soldiers.”
Tang Hong said in response, “I’ve brought eighty of His Highness’ personal bodyguards. Your guards will still be yours to command, but let’s go to the city gates first and inform them of the matter regarding Lord Lin, because we must make sure that the soldiers guarding the city gates peacefully accept the news. His Highness has said that he won’t touch a single soldier of Ting City, and whoever is in charge of their troops will still remain in charge…”
These words were as good as having Zhang Yan eat a calming pill, but before Tang Hong could finish, someone else rushed in frantically from outside, shouting, “Reporting -- Governor Sun has brought more than a hundred personal troops here, and he is outside, asking to see Lord Zhang!”
He had come at just the right time. Tang Hong urged, “I’ll open up a path for you, Lord Zhang, let’s slaughter our way out!”
But Zhang Yan said, “Wait, perhaps the situation has changed!”
Tang Hong: “If the governor wished to negotiate, then he would personally enter the manor. Right now, he is waiting outside the manor, which means that, without a doubt, he wants to enact a murderous scheme. Lord Provincial Officer, we cannot take such a risk.”
Upon hearing those words, Zhang Yan’s expression changed, and he hurried to gather up all of the soldiers in the manor, before exiting the manor with Tang Hong.
The sky was pitch black, and Governor Sun hadn’t seen Tang Hong before, so he didn’t know who he was. He only thought he was an ordinary commander of a hundred, so he raised his voice and asked, “Where is Zhang Yan?”
Zhang Yan steered his horse out of the ranks. “This general is here, what orders does Lord Sun have?”
Tang Hong turned his head and sent a look up high. Fang Qingyu’s Yunshu Sword left its sheath, and like a gecko, he pressed himself at a slant along the eaves. His dark blue brocade bodyguard robe became one with the vast nightscape under the light of the bright moon. All he waited for was for the governor to sense that something was wrong, so that he could drop down from up high and take his life.
Governor Sun said solemnly, “Provincial Officer Lin was met with an ambush on his way to the banquet and fell prey to the Sun family and the fake crown prince’s deadly trap. Bring Lord Lin’s command tally, and come with me to take command of the city guards.”
As soon as these words were spoken, the crowd of soldiers stirred, and their voices created a hubbub.
Zhang Yan had already seen two letters and had long since determined that it must have been the governor who had acted so viciously, so how could he believe what was said? He immediately replied coldly, “This general would like to ask the lord, where is the murderer who killed the provincial officer?”
Governor Sun responded, “This official has men searching for them. If they are able to find the killer, then they will definitely be handed over to you to enact your revenge, but this matter of the troops cannot be delayed, otherwise things will change too rapidly. Quickly now!”
But Zhang Yan said, “Since the killer is yet to be determined, this general is unable to hand over the command tally. Lord Sun, please return.”
Governor Sun said angrily, “Zhang Yan! Don’t destroy your own future! Provincial Officer Lin colluded with the Sun family to try and support a fake crown prince in usurping the throne, but now he has died violently on the street. The envoy that the imperial court has sent will arrive in just a few days, and if you were sensible, you would hand over the command tally; this official is willing to beg for mercy on your behalf and spare your life. If you are intent on rebelling, then there is nothing but death waiting in your future!”
Both Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong couldn’t resist thinking, As expected, this was all within Li Qingcheng’s predictions. This governor was really very cooperative.
Tang Hong reached back and pulled out the Fanhai Halberd on his back, roaring loudly, “The person who killed Provincial Officer Lin was you! Kill him to avenge the Lord Provincial Officer!”
Upon hearing that he would be punished, Zhang Yan had already made up his mind to cut off all means of retreat, and he pulled out his sword, roaring, “Kill him to avenge the Lord Provincial Officer!”
At the same time, in the pitch-black wilderness of Mt. Mian, along a rough mountain road.
Li Qingcheng rushed up the mountain without stopping before reining his horse to a halt on a side summit. The arctic gyr let out a long cry, then it pulled in its wings and landed on Li Qingcheng’s shoulder.
There was another war horse tied to a nearby tree that was currently grazing. The bloodied night traveling uniform slung over the horse’s back was Zhang Mu’s.
Li Qingcheng let his horse graze as well as he, treading lightly, climbed up the stairs, all the way to the open space at the summit. In the darkness, there was a Daoist temple in front of him, where a single, bean-sized star of lamplight shone.
In the vast space in front of the temple stood two people. One of them was tall, and his upper body was bared, his outer robe bundled around his waist. The skirt of his robes swayed in the breeze as he held the Wuming Sabre in his hand; that was indeed Zhang Mu.
The other person, standing to the side, was an old man almost sixty years of age. He had the bearing of an immortal, and he wore a grey-blue Daoist robe, wielding a wooden sword.
“Mucheng,” the old man said kindly. “After many years of separation, you have already grown this tall.”
Zhang Mu was holding his saber in a reverse grip, and now he cupped his hands and bowed. “Teacher Sun, if Mucheng may be so bold to request Teacher Sun to hand over that person in the temple.”
Li Qingcheng stood far away as he recalled what Fang Qingyu had said before. Sun Yan’s father had retired and no longer heeded the affairs within the clan. He lived in seclusion on Mt. Wenzhong outside of the city, where he cultivated his dao alone. That was probably him, was Lin Xi actually hiding here?
That old Daoist priest was indeed Sun Yan’s father, and now, the old Daoist replied, “Mucheng, Provincial Officer Lin has guarded Ting City for eleven years. He has made no lasting contributions, but he has also not made any faults either. So why are you here, with an aura of bloodshed and violence about you, here to kill him?”
Zhang Mu responded earnestly, “He fought against My Highness.”
Old Daoist Sun sighed. “Li Qingcheng has already arrived in Ting City?”
Zhang Mu replied, “Yes, Teacher Sun. Please hand this person over to Mucheng, and Mucheng will no longer bother you.”
Sun-daoshi asked consideringly, “What if I don’t hand him over?”
Zhang Mu replied harshly, “Then I can only overstep my bounds.”
Sun-daoshi shook his head regretfully. “Lin Xi has been loyal to the Sun family for many years, and since he has come here to rely on my protection, I cannot just sit here and watch him die before it is his time. Act ba.”
Zhang Mu raised his blade, the shadowy outline of his body trembling slightly, as if he couldn’t decide.
Sun-daoshi waited for a long time, until finally he said, “Mucheng, are you afraid to swing your blade at me?”
“The day that the former emperor took over Ting City, this place became the sparring grounds for your father and I,” old Daoist Sun said. “You should still remember that you and Yan’er were the only two watchers then, Mucheng.”
“I remember.” Zhang Mu’s voice was deep and hoarse, and he turned his head to glance at the huge bell hanging in front of the temple.
Li Qingcheng stood behind a large rock, holding his breath.
Old Daoist Sun said, with a pleasant smile on his face, “Back then, your father won against me and rang this bell before personally heading down the mountain, escorting Li Su into Ting City. It is said that nine times does the bell echo throughout the mountains, representing a change of era. The ice of Feng River defrosts, for the autumn has left and the spring has arrived. Historically, Mt. Wenzhong has always been where new emperors are welcomed. When you came here tonight, was it to kill someone, or to be like your father and personally ring this bell?”
Zhang Mu shook his head slightly, each word issuing clearly from his mouth. “Even if this bell does not sound, the hundred thousand residents of Ting City, and the eight thousand troops will still pledge their loyalty to him. From the beginning to the end, Qingcheng has always relied only on his own strategies.”
Sun-daoshi sighed. “If no one assists him, then even if he has planned the movements of his troops for a thousand li around, that is no more than idle theorizing and empty talk. Mucheng, you and Zhang-zhuangzhu are too alike. Your father followed Li Mou for many years, before he was even the ruler. Have you ever thought at all about why you must pledge your allegiance to him? What skills and merits does this son have? To make you so dead set on committing yourself to his cause?”
Zhang Mu: “Because, I am called Zhang Mucheng.”
For an instant, Li Qingcheng’s heart was struck with awe.
In that second, the lofty range and high summits were completely still, before jackdaws cawed in unison, thousands of li away, in this moonlit night.
The silver light shone over the landscape, the vast land under the heavens, and the man standing alone at the peak of Mt. Wenzhong, the Wuming Sabre on his chest, who had coldly and calmly, but also warmly, spoken that sentence, “Because I am called Zhang Mucheng.”
In that instant, Li Qingcheng’s heartbeat seemed to have quietly stopped.
“Because you are called… Zhang Mucheng,” Li Qingcheng murmured, in a very low voice.
The emotions that he had suppressed for a long time at the bottom of his heart were finally too hard for him to control, and they erupted outwards, causing his world, his thoughts, and his persistence to burn to ash. There was only a summit, a round moon, and that single person with the skirt of his robes fluttering in the wind.
“Mu-ge,” Li Qingcheng said quietly.
Sun-daoshi narrowed his eyes. With a flick of his grizzled eyebrows and a joyful smile, he said, “Since things are like that, then young Zhang-zhuangzhu, if you would.”
Zhang Mu changed his posture, flicking his long blade out with one hand, the blade pointed slanted at the ground. The moonlight shone on his burn-scar-marked face. Li Qingcheng watched from afar, his heart thumping loudly, feeling an indescribable emotion.
“Zhang Mucheng,” Li Qingcheng murmured.
In that instant, Zhang Mu let out a long, clear howl, his inner strength clearly very plentiful. The Wuming Sabre made of black steel reflected the silver light of the moon onto the ground as Zhang Mu and Sun-daoshi fought each other in that very place!
Zhang Mu went in with a direct stab, while old Daoist Sun used the penultimate technique of his family’s teachings, the Plum-Shattering Fist. It was aimed to the millimeter to press against the body of the blade, easily sending the heavy sword sweeping sideways without any extra effort. Zhang Mu let out an angered roar, sweeping his blade horizontally across again, his robes fluttering, like a falcon swooping down to catch a rabbit!
A fierce gust exploded outwards. That was the first time that Li Qingcheng had seen Zhang Mu fight with all his might. Under the bright moon, Zhang Mu’s sabre and body became one, and that heavy blade was incredibly lively as it swiped through the air, chopped, hacked, circled, stabbed, sliced, and flicked, like a male falcon spreading its wings, its feathers drifting in the wind that scattered even the clouds!
Old Daoist Sun was like a leaf drifting through a storm, fluttering and striking, but his movements grew slower and slower. His entire body was enveloped in a viscous aura, and Li Qingcheng only felt that the range of that strong gale was expanding, until a gust of air seemed to cover the entire empty patch of land, controlling the movements of everyone on it.
Old Daoist Sun was already at an advanced age, and this gale tugged at his body until he felt like he was slogging through mud, his movements slowing more and more. It was then that Zhang Mu let out an angered roar, rising again into the air as he turned on the spot, and with a reverse slice, he performed a large chop downwards!
That move was as hard as steel, and the blade sliced out from his back, slicing a perfect arc glowing with silver light. It was filled with strength, containing the force of raging mountain floods that leveled mountains and filled seas, thundering with the power of thousands of strikes of lighting, as if it was going to split the entire mountain into two, slicing downwards viciously!
With a huge boom, the grey cobblestones were pulverized. Under the blade qi, a trough half a chi deep and three chi long was carved into the surface of the ground, and under the reverberations of that qi, old Daoist Sun’s mouth and nose dripped with blood as he toppled.
“You…” Old Daoist Sun suddenly violently swiped his sleeve!
Zhang Mu had long since prepared for such a move, and his empty right hand swept up and inwards as golden lights twinkled!
Li Qingcheng only saw a blur in front of his eyes before silver lights flashed across his vision and several golden darts whistled through the air. In the blink of an eye, there were five dings, and the Plum Blossom Darts collided with the Golden Eagle Feathers, falling all over the ground.
Zhang Mu: “Teacher Sun, I have won.”
Old Daoist Sun slowly toppled over backwards, falling onto the ground.
Zhang Mu bent over, gasping uncontrollably for breath. That pitched battle had consumed all of his physical strength, and now his muscled back and bare upper body were beaded with sweat.
As usual, he held the pose that his last attack had ended in, before he pulled his blade back, easily sliding it along close to his body as he returned it to its position on his back. He then turned around, and with heavy steps, he walked towards the Daoist temple, swaying as he did so.
Li Qingcheng took the first step.
Zhang Mu stopped in his tracks, and his ears twitched habitually.
Li Qingcheng ran towards Zhang Mu, who turned around and reached out a hand.
“Mu-ge,” Li Qingcheng called.
“Come, Qingcheng,” Zhang Mu said earnestly.
Li Qingcheng walked forwards, linking his hand with Zhang Mu’s, only for Zhang Mu to fiercely tug Li Qingcheng into his own embrace. The two of them tightly intertwined around each other.
The icy cold blade, the boiling hot back, the manly scent of his skin.
Zhang Mu stroked the hand that Li Qingcheng had wrapped around his own waist, before gently pulling it away, asking, “When did you arrive?”
Li Qingcheng: “For a long while now, didn’t you hear the falcon cry?”
Zhang Mu shook his head, puzzled. “Just now I was in the state of circulating my qi, and aside from Teacher Sun, I couldn’t see or hear anything else.” He pressed down lightly on the armor on Li Qingcheng’s shoulder and stroked it, before asking tiredly, “What about inside the city?”
Li Qingcheng responded, “Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu went.”
When they got to this point, Li Qingcheng suddenly realized something, and he asked, “Where’s that bastard? We must bring him back immediately.”
Zhang Mu smiled slightly, an extremely rare occurrence, as he looked into Li Qingcheng’s eyes. “I’ll go.”
Zhang Mu entered the temple, while Li Qingcheng stood under the light of the moon. He watched the comatose Sun-daoshi for a while, before carrying him up the stairs, placing him on a rush cushion in the temple.
Zhang Mu tossed Lin Xi into the hall. “He won’t be an issue. I’ve sealed all of the main acupoints on Teacher Sun’s body with blade qi. In a bit he should be able to wake up.”
Li Qingcheng nodded, before bending over to check Lin Xi’s breathing, only to see that the color of Lin Xi’s face was like joss paper. He breathed out more than he breathed in, and the areas around his nose and mouth were covered with bloody foam.
Li Qingcheng peeled up one of his eyelids, only to see that his eyes were bloodshot and his pupils blown wide. Before this, he had been struck by a blow from Zhang Mu’s blade, and his ribs had broken and punctured his lungs. He then ran with his life on the line onto the mountain, but he was already beyond saving.
Li Qingcheng waited for a while longer, until Lin Xi stopped breathing. Then, he said, “Let’s go, we’ll bring the body back.”
Zhang Mu dragged Lin Xi along by one leg, tugging his corpse out of the temple. Li Qingcheng stopped in his steps, looking at the bell outside the temple.
“Back then, what happened?” Li Qingcheng couldn’t resist asking. “Your dad and my dad also came here?”
Zhang Mu nodded.
Li Qingcheng asked, “What meaning does the tolling of the bell hold?”
Zhang Mu responded, “The Sun family has watched over the bell generation after generation. There is a rhyme from Ting City: Nine times does the bell echo throughout the mountains, representing a change of era. The ice of Feng River defrosts, for the autumn has left and the spring has arrived. Back in the day, my father rang this bell and escorted the previous emperor into the city, and without losing a single soldier, the entirety of Ting City surrendered.”
Li Qingcheng murmured, “Since this legend exists, why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Zhang Mu: “Because it wasn’t the right time.”
Li Qingcheng took a step. “What about now?”
Zhang Mu: “There’s no problem now. Do you want to hear the sound of the bell?”
Li Qingcheng walked towards the huge bell, but Zhang Mu tossed Lin Xi’s corpse away and pressed one hand down on Li Qingcheng’s shoulders, indicating that he wait where he stood.
“I will do it for you,” Zhang Mu said. “This is my duty.”
Zhang Mu walked alone towards the huge bell outside the Daoist temple.
The first ring on Mt. Wenzhong traveled through the quiet night for hundreds of li.
Even the thousands of inhabitants of distant Jia City, on the southern bank of the Feng River, heard the sound of the bell from afar.
Twenty years had passed since the Yu emperor Li Mou had united the Western Plains when the bell once again sounded. The rich voice of the bell echoed through the night.
Zhang Mu, his shoulders and back bare, swung the large beam. Every time it struck, the bell would ring with a thunderous, almost deafening boom. The birds in the groves on Mt. Wenzhong covered by night were startled into flight, and they flapped across the horizon.
There was a silver flash of lightning across the horizon. The thousands of citizens in Ting City raised their heads, and the soldiers on the city walls glanced in confusion all around them.
“Open the city gates --!” an old soldier shouted. “Open the city gates, welcome the emperor!”
Twenty years ago, the citizens that had seen the Yu emperor Li Mou and Zhang Xin enter the city with their own eyes all came rushing out of their houses, lining the streets.
It was the dead of night, and the torches rose in forests as Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu hurriedly brought the Ting Province lieutenant general over from one end of the street, each of them pulling their horses to a stop.
“What’s going on?” Tang Hong asked. “A bell? Does the Lord Provincial Officer know what the sound of this bell means?”
Zhang Yan said, his voice shaking, “Nine times does the bell echo throughout the mountains, representing a change of era. The ice of Feng River defrosts, for the autumn has left and the spring has arrived. Was it Elder Sun who personally struck the bell? Quickly, we must head to the city gates to welcome His Highness!”
Fang Qingyu raced over on another horse, shooting Tang Hong a look. Tang Hong said, “This is General Fang, one of our own. He too has received the crown prince’s orders to come here ahead of time and stay within Ting City to look after matters.”
On the back of his horse, Zhang Yan cupped his hands, exchanging greetings with Fang Qingyu. Fang Qingyu then asked, “Lord Tang, when will His Highness enter the city? His residence within the city has already been cleaned.”
Tang Hong replied, “He is about to enter the city. If the Lord Provincial Officer could please wait on top of the city watchtowers.”
Zhang Yan was still on his guard. “How many people has His Highness brought? Will we need to open the main gates?”
Fang Qingyu responded with a smile, “His Highness believes that all of his subjects are loyal to him without a fault. He believes in Lord Lin, and he also believes in Provincial Officer Yan, which is why he came here on his own. Provincial Officer Zhang only needs to open a small door and await him at the city watchtower.”
Zhang Yan reined his horse to a stop for a long while before nodding solemnly. He and Tang Hong headed towards the city watchtower.
After the nine tolls sounded, the people moved into action, each of them dragging their families out into the street.
Zhang Yan climbed up the city tower and waited. In the vast night landscape, the pitch-black mountain ranges undulated across the land as two riders came down Mt. Wenzhong, rushing towards the city gates.
Li Qingcheng and Zhang Mu rode one horse, and on the other a person was securely strapped in.
Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong stood together up high. The arctic gyr let out a long screech as it circled once above the city walls, before it flew back onto Zhang Mu’s shoulder. The two steeds arrived outside the city gates, but they didn’t enter the city.
Li Qingcheng dismounted.
“Is the person who is arriving Your Highness the Crown Prince?” Zhang Yan shouted from above. “This one is the lieutenant of Provincial Officer Lin of Ting Province. Provincial Officer Lin has fallen prey to assassins, and his survival is yet unknown…”
Li Qingcheng remained silent as he untied the person strapped to another horse. He personally carried him, walking to the city gates, before placing that corpse on the ground.
The gates to Ting Province slowly opened, and the main street was lined with the curious gazes of thousands of city residents.
Inside and outside the city, even the birds were silent.
Li Qingcheng laid out Lin Xi’s corpse properly, before kneeling down slowly on both knees, saying woodenly, “Provincial Officer Lin Xi has guarded Ting Province for ten years. In a single day, he was harmed by a traitor, all because I came one step too late.
“My loyal subject has died for me!
“I, Li Qingcheng, swear upon my name as the crown prince of the country of Yu! That my court! Will definitely avenge Lord Lin!”
Li Qingcheng sobbed loudly, tears flowing down his face as he formally and properly kowtowed. In front of thousands of people, he kowtowed three times to Lin Xi’s corpse.
In that instant, the soldiers on the city walls and the residents of the city fell into an uproar. Zhang Yan rushed down the watchtower, personally exiting the city to lift Li Qingcheng to his feet, and the soldiers came forward to gather respectfully around Lin Xi’s corpse.
Zhang Yan personally took the reins of his horse, leading Li Qingcheng into the city.
“Your Highness.” Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu came forward.
Li Qingcheng’s eyes were bright red, and he managed to nod, asking, “Zhang Yan?”
“This general is here!” Zhang Yan cupped his hands, falling to one knee.
Li Qingcheng bit his finger, drawing blood. Knowing what was coming, Fang Qingyu handed him a piece of paper, and Li Qingcheng’s finger swept across the page. A certificate of appointment took shape lightly under his finger, and after he finished, he even pressed a bright red fingerprint to it.
“Zhang Yan, from this moment on, you are the Provincial Officer of Ting Province. Here is a certificate of appointment personally written by me. You take this certificate, and with Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu, go forth and incorporate the old divisions outside the city. If anyone is dissatisfied, strike them down on the spot! Bring the city guards back into the city and wait for the imperial court to engage in battle. That is when you will get revenge for Elder Lin.”
Zhang Yan took the missive that the crown prince had written, thanking him endlessly. He finally managed to see Lin Xi’s corpse with his own two eyes, and he was both glad and sorrowful. He was saddened because Lin Xi had been the one to promote him to his current position, but he was happy because in the span of a single night, he had become an official of the Qinwang who had rendered a great service. In the coming days, he would definitely be greatly rewarded.
Zhang Yan, Fang Qingyu, and Tang Hong led a division of troops out of the city. Li Qingcheng let out a breath, wiped his face, and turned his head to look at Zhang Mu, smiling a little.
The corners of Zhang Mu’s mouth twitched stiffly in response.
“Are you tired?” Li Qingcheng asked.
Zhang Mu was clearly tired, and he barely managed to nod his head as he watched Li Qingcheng’s fingers. “I’ll be able to hold out. Does it hurt?”
Li Qingcheng climbed onto his horse, saying, “It’s alright, let’s go back first to rest for a bit ba.”
There were still about twenty soldiers around them, and they immediately spread out, protecting Li Qingcheng and Zhang Mu as they headed towards the western part of the city.
The two of them rode on one steed, and everywhere they went, the citizens along the sides of the street knelt down. The main gates to the Sun manor faced a stone river that spanned the Feng River, which ran through the middle of the city, and at this time, Sun Yan, with all of the male servants of the household following his lead, was kneeling outside the gates.
Li Qingcheng nodded his head and tugged at the reins with one hand as he opened his mouth and said, “Sun Yan.”
Sun Yan responded, “This subject… this subject is here.”
Li Qingcheng: “They will arrive after noon tomorrow. This sovereign feels that… we can now sit down and properly discuss a price. Minister Sun, what do you think?”
Sun Yan’s voice trembled as he replied, “This subject does not dare, this subject will listen to what Your Highness commands.”
Li Qingcheng smiled softly. “Don’t be afraid. On behalf of the affection between you and Mu-ge, this sovereign won’t demand an exorbitant amount. You will still be able to pay back the money without great difficulty.” And after saying this, he suddenly spurred his horse into movement, leaving self-satisfied.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.